Ottawa Business Journal Fall 2021

Page 18

CEO OF THE YEAR

‘I want to challenge the boundaries’

Kathryn Tremblay has put humanity at the centre of her businesses

BY DAVID SALI

david@obj.ca

FALL 2021

A

OBJ.CA

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s pandemic-fuelled chaos swirled all around her business 18 months ago, Kathryn Tremblay calmly stood in the eye of the storm. She plotted an organizational shift that was less about boosting revenues than it was about lifting spirits. Not that things were going swimmingly at Tremblay’s Ottawa-based staffing and recruitment agencies, excelHR and Altis Recruitment. With the global economy in a tailspin, the firms and their affiliated companies, Altis Technology and excelITR, were bleeding cash as the temporary workers they were paid to recruit were being jettisoned from their job sites by the hundreds. In a matter of weeks, 40 per cent of the companies’ 2,000 placements were out of work. While that left a gaping hole in the excelHR network’s balance sheet, finances weren’t Tremblay’s main worry. “You didn’t have time to think,” says the 54-year-old native of Orléans. “For us, we went straight into the mode of, let’s try to help as many Canadians work as possible. Let’s not worry about the numbers; let’s not worry about our losses. Our team members came together, almost like a rally cry, to show up for Canadians.” What happened next was something that won’t be found in most CEOs’ business recovery playbooks but is as much a part of Tremblay’s DNA as her thousand-watt smile.

The veteran executive led a transformation that not only helped her clients overcome unprecedented economic and human resource challenges but also turned her own companies’ fortunes around, earning Tremblay the 2021 CEO of the Year Award from OBJ and the Ottawa Chamber of Commerce. She joins a list of distinguished recipients that includes Kinaxis boss John Sicard, the 2020 honouree, and Telesat chief executive Dan Goldberg, who captured the trophy in 2019. Under Tremblay’s guidance, her companies launched a series of webinars zeroing in on topics that were suddenly top of mind to employees and managers across the country who were navigating an unprecedented crisis: mental wellness in the workplace, how to plan for an eventual return to the office, fostering a more inclusive work environment and more. Over the past year, the organization has hosted more than a dozen virtual seminars, which have been viewed by thousands of participants – including many of excelHR’s competitors. Providing advice to your business rivals might seem counterproductive. But Tremblay, who has mentored hundreds of students and entrepreneurs in her threedecade career, has always believed that collaborating with her peers is the surest path to long-term success – for both her companies and the industry as a whole. “When I have an issue, I’m never afraid to pick up the phone,” she says. “I’ll

(contact) anyone in my community and I’ll say, ‘What do you think about this issue and why did you handle it that way?’ I’m not afraid to ask for advice. I love listening to other people’s ideas, and I’m willing to champion those ideas if I think they’re good ones.” Tremblay says she’s benefited as much from the wise counsel of other business leaders as they have from her company’s efforts. “It’s created this kind of circle of support in the community,” she explains. “What I give actually comes back to me.” Friends and colleagues say Tremblay’s all-for-one, one-for-all approach is part and parcel with a personality that exudes positivity and inspires those around her. “She’s not afraid to share where she’s at, what she’s doing,” says exelHR chief financial officer Cindy Spence, who’s worked with Tremblay for more than 20 years. “She knows business leaders are navigating the same (challenges), and what

you give out into the world, it will come back … probably tenfold. The more we share, the more we learn, and the better we’ll all be.” Christine Pietschmann Hollister, the vice-president of human resources at Ottawa firm tech Ranovus, says her longtime friend’s leadership was invaluable during the depths of the pandemic. “I saw how again and again she was willing to put her neck out there and tackle issues where there was no clarity,” Pietschmann Hollister says, citing the firm’s seminars on issues such as the legal implications of work-from-home policies. “That takes a special kind of leader. I think a lot of leaders don’t want to take that approach because they don’t want to put something out there and then find out three weeks later that they were wrong about it.” Under Tremblay’s guidance, excelHR, Altis and their associated companies have nimbly adapted to the pandemic world,


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